Sunday, August 19, 2018

I Feel Like a Million Dollars, But Nobody's Picked up the Tab Yet... Amy Schumer is Better than Hitler, and So Can You

The Internet has proven to be a revolutionary force, not just in terms of communication on a global scale, but in terms of how it has impacted society as a whole. And while it has also made clear that very rarely can any significant cross-section of people agree on anything, even pizza toppings (I will never understand the hate for pineapple), there are a few general, truths (nearly) universally agreed upon that the Internet has illuminated:

1) We like watching people have sex. A lot.
2) Everybody is literally worse than Hitler.
3) People really seem to hate Amy Schumer.

Honestly, that last one never made a lot of sense to me. It always seemed that Amy Schumer, for whatever reason, has attracted a disproportionate amount of vitriol from the usual gang of (online) idiots. The only verifiable controversy that ever seemed to justify any level of ire was accusations of ripping off some jokes from other comedians, which seemed to fizzle out fairly quickly. The only thing that came to mind was that some of the misogyny that has somehow found a fertile environment in which to fester in the nether regions of the Internet had reared its ugly head, and Schumer was a woman working to be successful in a field traditionally dominated by men and was famous enough to draw the attention of adoring fans and unprincipled assholes alike. Upon further consideration of all of the plethora of evidence available from that self-same Internet, it then occurred to me that all of the vitriol directed at Amy Schumer wasn't because she was a woman and famous or a woman and a trailblazer.

It was simply because she was a woman.

Unfortunately (sadly, disgustingly--choose your own applicable modifier), in this day and age Schumer's experience as a target of online hatred and abuse is not unique, it is simply a much more visible example of the unimaginable bullshit that women have to suffer while interacting on the Internet on a daily basis. I say "unimaginable" because as a man, all I can do is imagine, and imagination in this case doesn't come close. I've never had to worry about the credibility of rape threats from random douchebags online, or even really about being the recipient of threats of rape at all. I've never had people harass me night and day on social media for simply having the audacity to have an opinion about... anything.

It's bizarre to me that in this day and age this is still an issue to the point where entire online subcultures form around embedded ideologies of misogyny (see, for example, the baffling incel movement), but then again hatred and fear have proven to be just as resilient as any other emotions, and just as hard for humanity to master as love. 

Th irony, though, in the backlash that Amy Schumer and her latest film I Feel Pretty received is that those who were the source of the majority of that backlash are probably some of the people who most would have benefited from its core messages.

The collective possible range of possible
emotional responses to 
I Feel Pretty has a pretty silly premise, even though it deals with some incredibly important and relevant topics. Schumer stars as Renee Bennett, an IT analyst working in a dingy basement at a remote location for a cosmetics company. It's established early on that she has some pretty severe anxiety and issues of low self-confidence due to her problematic self-perception as unattractive, or at least not nearly attractive enough to succeed in either her personal or professional life. Due to an accident at a spin class, she gets hit in the head fairly severely and awakens to find that she now sees herself as beautiful. Comedic hijinks ensue.

This film at first glance seems like it's using a premise fit for a quick Saturday Night Live sketch for a cheap, quick laugh. Actually sitting down and watching the film, it turns out that I Feel Pretty was an important feminist social commentary clothed in some standard romcom tropes. I think that a lot of the reaction to I Feel Pretty was a pretty good barometer of the state of media literacy among the general population. And the forecast is pretty grim.

Let me be clear: I Feel Pretty is not a perfect movie. It falls back a lot, especially near the end of its run time, on some pretty trite and obvious genre conventions, which is kind of disappointing. The one area where it is not lacking is in its engagement with themes that deal with the tension between  internalizing harmful societal standards of perfection--both physical and otherwise--and self-acceptance and self-confidence.

I think the main point of the film that a lot of its detractors missed was that it didn't matter whether Renee fell within the societal standards of beauty or what anybody else thought of her; what mattered, right from the very beginning, was what she thought of herself. Renee starts off as pretty timid and lacking in self-confidence in every aspect of her life. She's working at a company she loves but doing a job she hates because she doesn't think that she'd be able to succeed in a public-facing position. She doesn't have a stable relationship because she sees herself as not conforming to societal aesthetic norms. She has trouble even going to a workout class without feeling self-aware and socially awkward. What's more, she attributes all these failures to herself, even things that are out of her control, like during her first attempt at spin class when the seat on her stationary bike fails and she sustains a groin injury.

Once Renee hits her head on a subsequent attempt to master spin class the only thing that changes is her own perception of herself. She accepts herself and sees herself as beautiful. This leads to a rise in self-esteem and hence self-confidence. She applies and is eventually hired for an administration job that was posted at her company so she could work closer to where all the action was (which, for those of us who work in an office of any sort and can personally attest to, is always fucking riveting). Even though it's suggested and/or implied by at least one other character that she doesn't meet the typical size zero, model-thin look that would typically be expected for a business like a cosmetics company, Renee impresses her interviewers with her newfound confidence in addition to her obvious enthusiasm for the role and knowledge of the company.

Time for some good, old-fashioned PG-13 love.
She meets a man named Ethan (Rory Scovel) at the dry cleaners, and initiates a relationship with him without worrying about the possibility of rejection or worrying about what could go wrong. It turns out that Renee and Ethan hit it off extremely well, and Ethan is impressed by how confident and self-assured Renee seems, especially as he seems to be failing to meet societal expectations of masculinity, i.e., being aggressive and assertive and lifting manly weights instead of going to Zumba dance classes, which is characteristically thought of as a more feminine form of exercise.

I think there are two key scenes in I Feel Pretty which are key at getting to the heart of the movie's themes. The first happens as Renee and Ethan are on a date and they go to a bar which is hosting an amateur bikini contest, which Renee is eager to enter. Despite Ethan's misgivings and the fact that Renee neglected to wear a bathing suit of any variety, she enters anyway, and wins over the crowd by performing an impromptu dance including the always popular wet T-shirt act. The other women in the contest are portrayed as being more in line with the physical expectations of what people would be looking for in this sort of competition, i.e., the standard stick-thin model look. But Renee, because she doesn't care how others perceive her, is unencumbered by any self-doubt, and engages with the crowd in a way that the other contestants don't.

What's really striking about this scene is that it actually concludes in an incredibly intelligent way. Instead of paying into the classic comedic reversal and having Renee win, it turns out that the bar owner's niece ends up winning the contest.

And Renee doesn't give a shit.

Get that goddamn spotlight out of my eyes, or I swear
I will use it to maim you to Batman-villain levels of deformity.
Ethan, as impressed with her performance as the rest of the audience, asks her if she's disappointed that she doesn't win, and she tells him that it doesn't matter that she didn't win, because she already knows that she's beautiful. It seems like a simple thing, but essentially it boils down one of the main points that the film is making in that Renee wasn't looking for and didn't need any external validation of her self-worth. She didn't get up that stage for anybody but herself. As Renee puts it when questioned by Ethan if she's disappointed by not winning, "I know I look good. I don't need some room of drunk guys to confirm that."

The second scene that drives home the main themes of I Feel Pretty is near the end and a lot more obvious as it's the final phase of the classic romcom structure where the protagonist realizes how they've been fucking up the whole time and has the classic epiphany that allows them to reconcile with their estranged friends and love interests.

During a presentation for a new line of more affordable cosmetics her company is launching, Renee realizes that even though she thought that she had awakened from her stationary-bike-related concussion looking "undeniably pretty," there was, in fact, no change in her appearance at all. Upon her realization, she then modifies her speech to share her epiphany with the crowd about the fact that this self-loathing and sense of inadequacy is bred into women as they grow up, eradicating that "little girl confidence" they have when they are younger.

What the speech lacks in subtlety it makes up for in astute observations. All the insecurities that Renee was dealing with were the result of skewed social expectations that had been programmed into her through various media. Nobody is born hating their body or any other facet of themselves; that kind of self-loathing is a learned quality. Of course, one of the unspoken messages of the film is that if those insecurities can be learned, they can also be unlearned.

The core of these securities result in a difference between perception and expectations. Renee didn't lack self-confidence due any actual personal failures whether in terms of her physical appearance or in her career or her interpersonal relationships: she doubted herself because the way she perceived herself didn't match the unrealistic and oftentimes nonsensical societal expectations from magazines, and TV, and movies that she had internalized.

But as Renee proved to herself and demonstrated to the audience that just as expectations are necessarily influenced by society, conversely, how you present yourself and what you think of yourself necessarily influences how you are perceived by others. If you ignore what other people think you should be in any aspect of your life and resist the urge to conform to other people's expectations, that's a space from which true self-acceptance and self-confidence emerges.

A lot of the backlash for I Feel Pretty seemed to revolve around the idea that the film somehow engaged in body-shaming (i.e., belittling someone because of their appear) or that Amy Schumer was essentially "Hollywood ugly," which is to say, not ugly at all:

As soon as the trailer went live, people on Twitter were quick to point out the film’s problematic assumptions. The idea that Amy Schumer, a white, blonde, straight-size actress would have to hit her head in order to feel confident in her body is hard to swallow, yet even after said injury, it’s presumed that much of the humor comes from watching a woman with a body slightly larger than that of a typical Hollywood leading lady feel unapologetically proud of that body. (Rebecca Jennings,, "The Case For and Against Amy Schumer’s New Rom-Com ‘I Feel Pretty’")

The backlash seems to be best summed up by comedian Sofie Hagen who went on quite the Twitter rampage against the film:

Amy Schumer is blonde, white, able-bodied, femme and yes, thin. She IS society's beauty ideal. So they give her a ponytail and remove her make-up and suddenly she's ugly? Why not just giver her glasses or a fatsuit? What is wrong with this world?

I think that Hagen also sums up quite well the misunderstandings (deliberate or otherwise) of the premise and messages of I Feel Pretty. The whole point of the movie, made pretty clear from the opening scene, was not whether Renee fell within what might be considered what society considers a normative range of aesthetic beauty (although, if the Internet has taught us nothing else (well, besides those first three things), it's that the narrow range of beauty promoted by mainstream media sources is very narrow indeed: see, the entirety of Internet porn and its wondrous array of fetishes). That is, it never made a difference what other people thought of her; the only thing that mattered was how she thought of herself.

The specific issue that Hagen pointed out was actually rebutted pretty well by the film itself. Near the end, Renee runs in to Mallory (Emily Ratajkowski) , a casual friend she made earlier in the film and someone who Renee considers to be much more attractive than herself, and meeting societal standards of beauty. Mallory is dejected because her boyfriend just dumped her and she's struggling from self-esteem issues, and Renee is confused as to how anybody that she considers to be "undeniably pretty" could deal with those same kinds of issues as people who are perceived not to meet that ideal. The point is that it doesn't matter what you may look like to the rest of the world, ultimately what matters most is self-perception.

The movie makes it clear that Renee is able to succeed not because of what she looks like or in spite of what she looks like, but rather the fact that she is comfortable with and confident in herself. She builds a relationship with Ethan because she's confident enough to be herself around him. She gets her dream job of being a receptionist because she's confident in her ability to do the job better than anyone else. It's also worth pointing out that Renee pursues a career that actually earns less money than the job she's currently in because it's something she actually enjoyed.

They hate us 'cause they ain't us.
That's the great thing about the central message of I Feel Pretty. It's not concerned with promoting or even defining an ideal body image, and in fact it mostly shies away from defining how Renee sees herself after her injury. People have tried to twist the meaning of the film, saying that its horrifying that a woman would need a traumatic brain injury just to see herself as beautiful. This, again, completely misses the point.

Like a lot of online or popular backlash, the criticisms surrounding I Feel Pretty sounded curiously like they came from people who had never even seen the movie. And by "curiously" I mean "most assuredly." Several of the comments and reviews I read (even by some reputable reviewers) even went so far as to unfavourably compare I Feel Pretty to the turn-of-the-millennium Farrelly brothers' movie, Shallow Hal, which is pretty problematic upon (nearly immediate) retrospection.

Shallow Hal follows the titular Hal has a very narrow definition of beauty, and is hypnotized into seeing only other people's inner beauty. He subsequently falls in love with a morbidly obese woman, Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow) who he sees as a super skinny Gwyneth Paltrow-type. Eventually, Hal's cognitive spell is broken, and he ends up marrying her and learning a valuable lesson.

I will say that I think the hearts of the people behind Shallow Hal were in the right place, but that movie is incredibly tone-deaf and problematic for a number of reasons which weren't as obvious only a few short decades ago. But whereas in Shallow Hal, Hal accepts and marries Rosemary in spite of her appearance, in I Feel Pretty Renee succeeds because she has confidence in herself despite what other people may think of her appearance or her abilities. Rosemary is depicted as still requiring external validation to bolster her own self-worth and marries Hal who is able to "look past" her physical appearance. Renee, on the other hand, doesn't require any external validation of her self-worth, from a man or otherwise, and doesn't have to look past anything about herself. She doesn't need to change herself to become more confident; she is confident because she loves herself for who she is, nothing less and nothing more.

It's quite telling that the last shot of I Feel Pretty is Renee back in the spin class with a smile on her face, doing her very best. The movie's not trying to say that she's confident enough now to get in shape and be her "best self." There was nothing wrong with the self she already was. The point was that she wasn't exercising because she felt she had to in order to try and meet some sort of external benchmark of achievement in terms of either physical appearance or health. She was now exercising because it's what she wanted to do. For herself, and for no one else.


Overall, I Feel Pretty had an incredibly positive message, though I feel that it really got bogged down by some dogmatic adherence to genre tropes that held it back from being a true classic. Saying that, though, I think that this is an important film to watch for both young women and young men. I will say that as a man watching the film, it really struck me to realize the kind of issues of self-confidence and body image that are primarily an anxiety facing women. Overall, I give I Feel Pretty a 7.5/10 = Three Pairs of Heads on a Date Facilitated by an Online Dating App


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